Since my campaign ended, I’ve been catching up on my reading. As usual, I’ve mostly chosen books that, as my son Josh once said, “add to my sense of moral outrage”. Oh well.
Among the most eye-opening of these have been two, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power and Joan Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. At one level, these highly persuasive books offer fundamentally different premises about inequality and injustice in our nation. White Trash, as you might expect, focuses on poor and working-class whites and their centuries-long disparagement, economically, politically and culturally. Isenberg documents this systematic marginalization of folks, originally referred to as “waste people”, going all the way back to Jamestown and the earliest European settlements. Rather than being an aberration in need of periodic correction, the author reveals how class is baked into America’s DNA, our language and our economic system, from its founding to present times.
Coates’ focus is on the foundational role that white supremacy has played in our nation’s history from the outset, and to a shamefully significant degree, still does today. The “eight years in power” references two periods in American history when the levers of power began to open, significantly, to African Americans: The first occurred during Reconstruction following the Civil War’s end; the second was 2008 – 2016, when Barack Obama was president. While there have certainly been other times when civil rights and racial justice advanced in the US, these two moments stand out, both because they seemed to offer opportunities for fundamental change, and because both were greeted with enormous and violent opposition, as they unfolded and immediately after. While the severity of the backlash to the gains black people made were far more severe following Reconstruction, Trump’s ascendency likewise has galvanized indignation at the prospect of real equality for African Americans, and unleashed a backlash against all things Obama within the right wing of the political establishment. Through the essays in his book, Coates makes clear how integral, distinct and enduring white supremacy has been in our country.
These two extraordinary books together raise urgent and troubling questions: Can we truly overcome systemic racism, in this country? Can the myth of a color-blind and classless society in the United States ever come to fruition? And can we accomplish these things not just in our words – where we still have a long way to go – but more importantly in serious, tangible economic and political gains for poor and working class folks of all colors? I honestly don’t know. But both Ta-Nehisi Coates and Nancy Isenberg compel me to recognize how enduring injustice has been in our country, and to keep working, in my personal, economic and political life to overcome these core elements of what it means to be an American. I’m guessing that many of the people who supported my congressional campaign, and those of you committed to building on that effort share these convictions. Let’s keep at it, and let’s find better, more effective ways to get there.